Questions From Readers
● If, as stated at John 18:31, the Jews in Jesus’ time did not have the authority to execute lawbreakers, how could they stone Stephen to death?—H. H., U.S.A.
The degree of authority of the Jews at that time as to capital punishment is somewhat uncertain. Many scholars believe that forty years before the destruction of the Temple (70 C.E.), or about 30 C.E., the Jews ceased to pronounce capital or death sentences. This would seem to be in line with the comments made by the members of the Sanhedrin when they delivered Jesus up to the Roman governor Pontius Pilate. We read: “Pilate said to them: ‘Take him yourselves and judge him according to your law.’ The Jews said to him: ‘It is not lawful for us to kill anyone.’”—John 18:31.
It may be, though, that the Romans allowed the Jewish authorities the right to execute violators of religious law, but not violators of political law. According to Jewish historian Josephus, the Roman general Titus acknowledged that the Romans granted the Jews permission to kill defilers of the Temple. (Wars of the Jews, Book VI, chap. II, par. 4) Even if this indicated a general policy, it would not affect what we read in John 18:31.
The Jewish religious leaders were murderers, willing to slay an innocent man to accomplish their ends. Thus they plotted Jesus’ death. (John 8:44; 11:48-53) But a problem arose. They were afraid that acting against Jesus would cause an uproar among the people, many of whom respected or followed Jesus. (Matt. 26:4, 5) So after they had arrested Jesus secretly and condemned him on a religious charge, they sought to get Pilate to have Christ executed. Definitely Governor Pilate could do so, for he said to Jesus: “Do you not know I have authority to release you and I have authority to impale you?” (John 19:10) If the Romans killed Jesus on a political charge, that would tend to absolve the religious leaders of responsibility before the people for the death.
Whether the Jews themselves had authority to execute only violators of religious law, or did not have authority for any sort of capital punishment, they could still “take the law into their own hands,” as it were. On a number of occasions mobs wanted to kill Jesus. (John 8:59; 10:31; Luke 4:29) By mob action and conspiracy the Jews tried to do away with the apostles of Jesus. (Acts 5:33; 9:23, 24; 14:19; 21:27-31; 23:12) Hence, with or without legal authority, the Jews in general, older men, scribes and members of the Sanhedrin, who were incriminated and enraged by Stephen’s masterful discourse, “began to gnash their teeth.” Caught up in their wrath, the mob “cried out at the top of their voice and put their hands over their ears and rushed upon [Stephen] with one accord. And after throwing him outside the city, they began casting stones at him,” causing his death.—Acts 6:12; 7:54-60.